Thinking Christianly About The Equality Act: An Unprecedented Threat To Religious Liberty

Apr 24th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The Equality Act of 2021 has passed the House of Representatives.  At this point it is highly doubtful it will pass the Senate.  What is this proposed law?  What is its potential impact and should Christians be concerned about this proposed law?

First, the Equality Act, which passed the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives on 25 February 2021, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It does not include exemptions for religious groups, and it would override the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burdening” individuals’ exercise of religion unless there’s a compelling government interest.  Specifically, what is the bill’s content?  According the House of Representatives website, “This bill prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system. Specifically, the bill defines and includes sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation.  The bill expands the definition of public accommodations to include places or establishments that provide (1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services.  The bill allows the Department of Justice to intervene in equal protection actions in federal court on account of sexual orientation or gender identity.  The bill prohibits an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.”  In fact, the Equality Act specifically says that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, a federal law written to directly protect religious freedom, cannot be used to challenge the Equality Act’s rules on sexuality.

Second, theologian Albert Mohler speaks of “the looming threat of the Equality Act. The moral revolution . . .  would actually mean a near total restructuring of society. The consequence is a legislative agenda designed to coerce Americans into the celebration of the LGBTQ agenda.”  Mohler illustrates this pending restructuring by citing Bethany Christian Services “a tale of the head-on collision between sexual revolutionaries and Christian organizations and ministries who resist the new moral orthodoxy of modernity. In cities and states across America we already see the clash between Christian foster care/adoption agencies and the LGBTQ movement. Bethany Christian Services, at least in official policy, defined marriage in biblical terms. The agency placed children only in qualified Christian homes. Bethany believed that children deserved a loving home environment marked by a covenantal marriage union between one man and one woman. This meant that BCS and other agencies operating as Christian entities with Christian commitments would not partner with same-sex couples in the foster care or adoption process.”  But, BCS recently announced that it would now place children in same-sex households and other families identified as LGBTQ. This can only be described as a watershed pivot—a pivot away from orthodox biblical Christianity and towards the aims of the sexual revolution and its new morality.  He concludes: “The moral revolutionaries will come with rhetoric designed to lead your institutions into full retreat and surrender. They will tell you: ‘Think about how many more students your school will be able to teach if you adopt our policies on gender and sexuality.’ They will coerce you with, ‘We will not partner with your ministry if you continue to hold these convictions—so, in the name of serving others, just abandon your beliefs about homosexuality and transgenderism.’ We can understand this argument and the realities of this kind of pressure.  This pressure, however, is a recipe for the absolute dissolution of Christianity in the United States. It is an attempt to erase our witness not only in the public square, but even within the confines of our own ministries.  Every Christian and every Christian ministry will come to a reckoning—we must all decide here and now where we stand. Will we pivot or will we hold fast to faithfulness and the hope of the gospel?”

Third, fifty-seven Black Christian leaders have written a letter to members of the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee expressing support for LGBTQ rights but asking for a new bill that includes religious exemptions.  The signers, including representatives of the major black Christian denominations, said passage of the Equality Act would deny federal funding for faith-based programs that profess a traditional view of sexuality. [The letter is noteworthy because many evangelical and conservative Christians, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, oppose the idea of adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.]  For example, it would end free and reduced-cost lunch programs for children who attend religious schools and revoke federal loan eligibility for tens of thousands of students who attend hundreds of religious colleges.  “. . . We want to clearly state our support for federal protections for LGBTQ persons in employment, housing and the like,” the letter states. “We’re committed to embracing and advocating for those safeguards. Unfortunately, the collaborative process and substance of the Equality Act fall well beneath the standard necessary to cultivate a healthy pluralistic society.”  The faith leaders are advocating for a rival bill called Fairness for All, which would provide broad protections for LGBTQ people and, at the same time, provide exemptions for religious institutions that uphold traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality. That bill was introduced in the US House last month and is modeled on the “Utah Compromise,” a 2015 state law that strengthened religious freedom and protected LGBTQ people from discrimination.

Finally, how would the Equality Act impact Christian and other faith-based institutions of higher education?  Shirley Mullen is president of Houghton College and serves on the board of several Christian institutions, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.  Mullen joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen of Christianity Today to discuss the specifics of the Equality Act.  Here is a summary of her observations:

  • First, it raises the protection of the LGBTQ community to the federal level. “This affects federal funds and would be a national mandate; right now, they are negotiated at the state level.  The most significant part of the Equality Act is actually what’s not in it, which is the protection for religious freedoms that has always been an understood part of the American Constitution. It removes the traditional religious freedom protection provisions that have always been part of the Constitutional discussion. This would be the first major piece of legislation that excludes explicitly protection for religious freedom.  It would remove the potential for dialogue to continue between the rights of the LGBTQ community and the traditional rights of religious freedom . . . This isn’t just a debate between conservative Christians and the LGBTQ community. This has to do with longstanding historical protections for the diversity of religious persuasions within the American context.”
  • To explicitly remove protection for religious freedom is unprecedented. “The current framework at the federal level allows for dialogue between these protected classes. In the current Religious Freedom Restoration Act, claims of religious freedom wouldn’t always trump claims of civil rights . . . Instead of recognizing tensions and the importance of dialogue in a pluralistic society, the Equality Act de-legitimizes a set of important questions that have been understood as legitimate within the American Constitutional framework and civil society since the very beginning of our Republic.”
  • For example, groups that provide support, such as rescue missions, are concerned that they might not be able to engage in hiring that would allow them to hire in accord with a religious mission. The idea of embodying the Christian mission is so central to the work of Christian higher education, rescue missions, or any kind of humanitarian work.  “To be unable to hire people who share the fundamental convictions about the nature of marriage or the traditional understanding of a biblical sexual ethic is to deeply affect the ability of these organizations to carry out their mission. . . What is frightening is that many Christian organizations, including adoption agencies, humanitarian organizations, rescue missions, and Christian colleges, have activities that are not narrowly religious. Christian colleges are first of all educational institutions but are animated by a distinctively Christian mission in the same way that if you are a rescue mission, you are, first of all, a rescue mission, but carrying out that work animated by a particular ethic of a particular religious vision. The Equality Act would sever the organization from animating the religious vision.  It makes it hard for them to be religious in the way that they have traditionally understood that mandate. It removes from organizations the prerogative to hire for the objectives that they believe are central to their cause.”
  • There are two aspects of the Equality Act that would be difficult for Christian colleges to manage:  First is access to federal funding of student financial aid.  “Right now, seven out of every 10 students who come to a Christian college, including students of color and students from poor families, receive some form of federal funding, including Pell grants. The Equality Act not only interferes with the work of Christian colleges, but it also interferes with the prerogative of individual students to choose the kind of educational context that they believe would best serve them. The Equality Act would severely damage the capacity of these institutions to operate.  Second, the other damaging implication of the Equality Act would be accreditation. “Right now, Christian colleges participate in the mainstream of American higher education, which has always been marked by diversity and rich engagement across many denominations that are part of that network. The diversity of American higher education offers a wide range of options to students. Accreditation has always operated in terms of judging institutions by their ability to live up to their stated mission.  It has not been to measure educational institutions by whether they measure up to a standardized federal dictate. Accreditation has always operated to measure the integrity of an institution. If the Equality Act passes, it will jeopardize Christian colleges’ capacity to maintain its stated mission in presenting itself to accreditation institutions.  It makes Christian colleges pariah organizations within American higher education. It jeopardizes the ability of graduates of Christian colleges to be viewed with the same kind of credibility as graduates of other institutions in being considered for internships in social work and all arenas. It would jeopardize their capacity to be treated on the same playing field as other graduates in professional and graduate schools.”

Mullen concludes with this penetrating observation:  “Long before the Equality Act, an attorney said to our board of trustees that in the world of legislation and the courts in the days to come, your ability to be both a religious organization and an educational organization is going to be severed. It’s going to be impossible for you to claim both that you are doing education in ways that deserve accreditation and deserve federal support and that do that in a way that remains true to your religious conviction. That’s the concern at root that is troubling. It’s not just Christian organizations that will suffer. It is the rich diversity and range of institutions that make up the fabric of American pluralism, that contribute to the social good of our entire society.”


The very fabric of American civilization is unraveling before our eyes.  There is a haunting similarity between 21st century America and 1st century Christianity within the Roman Empire.  That was the context for the letters of the New Testament.  We will benefit from in-depth study and application of God’s Word in this time of unraveling.

See; Yonat Shimron, “Black Pastors Push for Compromise Rather than Equality Act” at (17 March 2021); Morgan Lee, “The Equality Act Through the Eyes of a Christian College President” at (18 March 2021);  Albert Mohler, Jr., “Pivoting to Surrender: A Warning for All Christians” at (4 March 2021).

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